Archive for March, 2017
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/26/17 and looks at how adulthood is defined by the risks we take, and how we own the choices we make.
A few days ago I was chatting with a colleague who was lamenting the pain he was feeling from a likely pinched nerve. He basically asked, ‘is this how you know you’ve turned 30?’ I told him that I knew I had turned 30 when older friends starting saying, “Oh, just you wait…”. Then I knew I was 30. I’ll add now that 40 has the same, “just you wait” but the tone these days imply a healthy dose of “welcome to the club.” Adulthood isn’t for the feint of heart. But aging and growing up, aren’t just a range of pains; they are a series of risks that define a life.
Growing up is a risk. We risk our selves, we risk our comfort, we risk change. Nothing of this we really have a choice about, the river of our lives will keep flowing so long as we are here – but we do have choices over how we respond to it. I think the hardest part of all this is in the lessons we learn for ourselves. We heard a bit about that in our Wisdom story earlier in the service about Nasruddin and the boy who ate too much sugar. How often do we find it easier to tell people how they should live their lives than we do in changing our own behavior? The boy is definitely eating too much sugar, but Nasruddin takes a month to tell him, because he first has to learn to stop eating so much sugar himself. There’s a certain integrity in not giving advice you can’t yourself follow; but if we’re honest with ourselves, we rarely hold back from teaching others what we can’t ourselves do. It’s a sort of projectile-adulting onto others where we can’t ourselves adult. We’ve all seen it, and we’re probably all guilty of it – over and over again.
On Thursday morning of this past week, I attended a collegial breakfast with 20 or so local Huntington area clergy – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and interfaith. Imam Mohammad spoke at length about scripture, its messages and the subsequent choices we make from it. There was an overall focus on remembering one of the hardest lessons in life – that doing what’s right, even if it’s hard, is worth it in the long run. For the Imam, if you follow the teachings of Scripture, God will find a way. What I found profoundly true in his words is the notion of risking our values into our lives. We don’t have control over all things, or even sometimes it feels like control over almost anything, but we can make value-based choices that help build the Beloved Community in our corners of the world. We can also make value-based choices that build rancor and hate. Even when we don’t have control over much in our lives, those are our choices we still have to make.
Part of the Imam’s teaching circled around the tragic misappropriation of the Koran’s teachings to foster terrorism. Even though the Koran specifically teaches against suicides, killing outside of self-defense, and generally calls for being accountable to our neighbors, some will take it to fulfill their own cultural worldview. As I spoke at length last week about how our own national American cultural Christianity sometimes subverts the bible to meet their own ends, Islam wrestles with this same challenge.
But it was also heartbreaking to know the Imam needed to clarify this. He even went on to say that Islam needed to own their problem where some are taking the Koran’s teachings in vain. In that spirit, I would say the same for white Christian men in the US. White Christian men cause most of our homegrown terrorist attacks; the evil of the KKK is certainly rooted in a misappropriation of cultural Christianity. This is far more serious than the cute story of sugar-habits we heard earlier but it remains instructive, before we tell others how to fix their problems, we need to own our own. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that as we point out the faults in others, we still need to attend to our own. We can’t continue pointing a finger at other groups without sorting out our own home, or it becomes a tragic distraction from the crises we cause or allow to go unchecked.
This is heavy on my heart this week – owning our own faults – probably the most critical aspect of real adulthood. If you follow me on Facebook, you probably have already heard this. I am going to take the liberty to share with you part of a public letter 6 of my colleagues and I crafted this week, that impacts our denomination and our relationship to institutional racism. There has begun a major public conversation around this, and it’s important that our Fellowship’s members are fully aware. Here is an excerpt from that letter.
“It is, once again, time for us to recognize how racism defines our own institutions and to work toward the demolition of this dangerous, debilitating system. It has come to our attention that the hiring practices of our Unitarian Universalist Association favor white people. With the recent hiring of a white, [cis] male minister, the entire Regional Lead staff in the Congregational Life department is white. Of the 11 people on the President’s Leadership Council (consisting of all department heads), 10 are white. The one exception is the Director of Multicultural Growth and Witness. Of the entire UUA staff, there are currently only two Latinx religious professionals, one of whom is Rev. Peter Morales whose terms ends in June.
The “Ends Monitoring Report” from April 2016 reports that, of the categories of employment within the UUA, people of color were no more than 11% of any group other those considered “Service Workers”. “Service Workers” represent the bottom of the organizational chart and are therefore the lowest paid and represent those with the least power. People of color represent 84% of that particular group. In no other category are white people fewer than 75% of the total.
The practice of hiring white people nearly to the exclusion of hiring people of color is alarming and not indicative of the communal practice to which our faith calls us. It is imperative for the fulfillment of our faith that we strive for the manifestation of a just society. It is in our communal spiritual path that our faith is powerful and the demonstration of that faith is made known insofar as we are able to realize justice in our own institutions, using that as a mirror for society at large.
The ongoing dismantling of white supremacy in our system is difficult. It requires a reimagining of our own culture and an openness to the myriad ways marginalized peoples will challenge the status quo. But, there is a grace found in our willingness to disassemble generations of assumptions found in white culture. It is in this process we might find our greatest joy and the deepest fulfillment of the promise of our faith. Unmasking white supremacy lurking in our system and within ourselves is a necessary first step toward our shared liberation. Without it, we continue to live in the stagnation of white dominance.
The purpose of this open letter is to call attention to current hiring practices of the UUA (recognizing that our own UUMA is not exempt and that we have not fully considered practices of our other major UU institutions) with the hope that hiring practices will change and a system of monitoring the success of creating a multicultural staff will be part of a public conversation. While members of this group have started a dialogue with UUA staff responsible for hiring, we are hoping this letter will ensure transparency in the process. With regionalization, ministers and congregations are that much more distant from the inner working of the UUA making clear policies around hiring practices all the more necessary. In addition to the policies, we require specific metrics to measure the success of those policies and an accounting at each Ends Statement Report. We call on the UUA Board to reconcile the results of each year’s hiring with the goal of increasing racial diversity on our Association’s staff.”
In our denominational election year, this has already become a national conversation- and our group cited above – are only one of many groups of people working to draw attention to the crisis. I am glad that all three of our candidates for UUA President, have already weighed in on action steps they would take – to varying degrees of specificity. The groups and individuals working concurrently to address this issue appear to all hope for open communication. I’ll be encouraging our own Board and Social Justice team to reflect on this. As part of our religious commitment to democratic values, our Fifth Principle, our congregations can weigh in, and communicate concerns to our denominational Board (email@example.com) which will be discussing this issue at length at their April 21st Board meeting.
I’m also mentioning this in relation to our own work toward unlearning racism in our community and our nation. We need to fix our own denomination if we’re going to try to fix the world. Otherwise we come across as strident and pedantic, not transformative. In our own Fellowship, I’m working with our Sunday Programs team to intentionally bring in more preachers who are women and people of color. Too many years we’ve had mostly white men speaking from our pulpit – and our team is working together to change that this year, and in the years to come.
I want to close by telling you a folk tale that I probably shared once before during our wondering portion of the service – maybe about 2 years ago – but address it at length this time from an adult perspective.
(Tell story of The Stream.)
When I talk about this story with kids, it’s a way of approaching change, and trust. But today, we’ve looked at the harder part of the risks in adulthood – owning our own shortcomings, fixing the world around us by starting with ourselves. And that remains as true for ourselves as it does our Fellowship; as it does our denomination, or our nation. But reflecting on adulthood, for me, resonates with an odd sense of looking to what came before, and wondering about what will come next. As we grow up and mature, so many stages in life feel so different than the last. Try to remember back to leaving elementary school and entering into junior high for the first time. Maybe you felt so big, or maybe you felt at such a loss. But there probably weren’t going to be the simple boxes of milk for snack time any more. The world was different. It only got even more complicated as we graduated, maybe we married, or had kids. The aches and pains come as we age, but adulthood is less about growing older, than it is about adjusting to new challenges, tougher risks, and different landscape after different landscape.
The stream remembered a wind that it could trust. Each new stage in life that comes knocking on our hearts, echoes a truth we heard some time in the past. The lessons and memories that came before, we carry with us past every desert, and over every mountain. What may come, surely might not be easy, but we’ve seen newness before; we’ve overcome hardship; we’ve been the new kid in the classroom. Life is a series of landing on distant shores, after so much that changes our visible life – we age, we mature, we weaken, we grow stronger, we break. But the essence of the stream stays true through it all – even if we feel defeated and torn down – our eternal stream runs through it all. Life that has walked, and crawled, and flew through millennia on this planet, is the life that beats in us today. That life can learn to remember, once again, a wind that it can trust, through all the dry times of our lives, until we can run free again, after the next challenge, and the next.
 Rev. Peggy Clark, Rev. Dawn Fortune, Rev. Jude Geiger, Aisha Hauser, Rev. Robin Tanner, Rev. Julie Taylor, Rev. Erik Wikstrom
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/19/17. It explores what the “Alice in Wonderland” story can teach us about a world that’s turned upside down–and how we can turn ourselves right-side up again.
I had originally planned to preach a lighter sermon this week, after several heavier weeks in the pulpit. With the turning toward Spring, we hoped for a more airy service; but in light of our national news this week, that would feel too tone deaf. But we decided to keep with our originally planned story earlier in the service around Alice in Wonderland – specifically about the March Hare – because the mad antics of this most famous children’s story remains relevant despite it all. We heard earlier about the light-hearted origins of the “mad as a March hare” reference that led to the famous storybook character, the March Hare. The Tea party scene in Alice in Wonderland would have been a shocking vignette for Victorian England; propriety mixed with mad-hatted rudeness. The recklessness of this tea-party inverted all the social norms for the day. Up was down, left was right; the party-goers were doomed to always be trapped in tea-time because the Mad Hatter was said to have murdered time. Hold that image in your mind as I speak today. We’ll come back to it soon enough.
Several years ago, my husband and I were driving from Montreal to Quebec. Our French is not good enough beyond the simplest reading of signs and menus, so our heads were swimming with all the language in the air. As a reprieve, we turned the car radio to a local English-speaking station. It sounded to me like their version of NPR; but maybe all Canadian radio features informed reporting and thoughtful discourse on social issues. We heard a foreign take on events in the U.S. from the Tea Party to the environment; from Islam to Christianity. And it was around the topic of Christianity where we stopped listening to the radio and started into a heated discussion about the merits of religion in the U.S.
Our household is essentially an interfaith one. I identify strongly as a U.U., and a theist, who’s rooted in the narrative traditions of Judaism and Christianity. I have my own meditation practice informed by Buddhist teachers over the years, but it’s the stories in the Bible that I grew up on that really hit home for me when they’re unpacked in meaningful ways. My husband, left what he experienced as too homophobic fundamentalist Christian worldview and has found a rich spiritual home in Neo-Paganism. (His family, thankfully, is super loving and great people – and often read my sermons – so if you’re reading this – love you Diane)!
But Christianty doesn’t still speak to my husband. It’s safe to say that we’re coming from a different place when we talk about the value of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And when a foreign station adds into the mix the politics of the American sphere, where religion starts and ends can become a bit less clear.
We had an intense moment where I lamented, “But that’s not really Christianity! Social conservatism doesn’t get to rewrite millennia of Christian teachings because they don’t align with today’s American cultural Christianity. Fundamentalism as we know it has only been around since the 1950s, and didn’t really gain serious traction until the 1970s.” (Yes, this is exactly what car trips are like when you’re married to a minister.) Up was down, left was right; the party-goers were doomed to always be trapped in tea-time because the Mad Hatter was said to have murdered time.
This sermon has become largely about how our nation has gone astray from the basics of religion – with the aim to help us refocus. It is in this spirit that I’d like us to consider the basics of the teachings of Jesus right now. Whether you see Jesus as God, or a prophet or a teacher – his wisdom has crafted this world we inhabit – and that wisdom is what I’m speaking to right now. His words often get lost behind denominationalism, politics, culture and doctrine. I deeply value his parables. Stories are a beautiful way to convey a teaching without sounding like you’re teaching. But they can leave a lot of room for interpretation. So let’s focus on the five very clear messages he gave that were not coached in parable, or metaphor, or narrative. Here they go and they’re easy to remember: feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; and shelter the homeless. As Unitarian Universalists, this teaching is central to our history of social service and social reform – it would be good to write those words on our hearts.
Very little of what Jesus ever said wasn’t cloaked in some varied meaning, so it seems to me that when he says something clearly, it’s probably extra-important. But its clarity should be seen as central to Christian practice and identity. Whatever speaks directly to its opposite could be said to be anti-Christian – or against the Christian spirit – or maybe more starkly, that’s how I always was taught to understand what it would mean to be a sort of Anti-Christ.
Now I’m not one to subscribe to apocalyptic prophesies, or a literal reading of Christian Revelation. I don’t believe in an actual anti-christ as depicted in the horrific imaginations of the “Left Behind” series. I have no respect for that kind of religious sensationalism and see it only as harmful and negligent. Too often, it’s leveraged to further partisan aims or issues over actual scriptural truths.
I want to try unpacking this concept in a more responsible way. If I were to take a turn at imagining an anti-christ, I believe that the anti-christ of today would be someone, or more likely some movements, that successfully convinced us that up was down, right was left, and that false was true. It would be a teaching that convinced us that Jesus said the opposite of what he actually said; that we shouldn’t feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; or shelter the homeless. It might sound something like this: 1) Those on Welfare deserved their fate and should simply go out and find a job. Then their families won’t go hungry. 2) It’s fine to have folks work long hours, for poor pay, in unhealthy conditions so long as the designer clothes they make reach lucrative markets – oh, and they do not get access to those designer clothes themselves. 3) Healthcare is not a right. It should be tied to employment. And you should be allowed to opt out. 4) Prison systems are designed to be punitive, not redemptive. The more full they are, the more efficient they remain. Go prison industrial complex! 5) Luxury housing is better for the tax base. Affordable Housing is middle class welfare. Section 8 housing credits are expiring all around us as a sign of the healthier economy – look, people just want to move back in, so we don’t have to fund the poor to live here now that the neighborhoods are getting cleaned up. I get very worried we’ve lost our way when we’re discussing cutting support for school lunches for hungry kids, or food delivered to seniors who can’t get out on their own – programs that have bedrocks of our safety nets for generations.
It’s almost comical if folks didn’t believe this while claiming religiosity. And this isn’t just my liberal UU take on it. My Christian friends and colleagues in the clergy, who range from UCC to evangelical to baptist, all agree that up is not down, right is not left, and the Christian message clearly states that people are here to help people – without judgment. One of the major Baptist news feeds this seek, just called out the national desire to spend more on ways to kill people with our military while cutting back at feeding our elders. I would say that this shouldn’t be allowed to hide behind a partisan smokescreen; the Baptist press simply called it “sin.”
The liberal and progressive wings of religion in America seem to have given ground to radical, right wing, extreme American cultural Christianity and convinced itself that those on the fringe are actually the center and those of us who maintain that compassion is central to religion are the crazy radicals. It’s simply not true. If there were an Anti-Christ to Christianity it would be heard in the voices that spout Jesus was not for the poor, the oppressed, or the hungry. What I call the basic Christian spirit, or the basic religious spirit, they would call class warfare.
And to be clear – this doesn’t fall neatly on either side of the political aisle. When I say liberal or progressive, I only mean in social terms. Not political terms. It was a conservative in the White House that developed the robust housing program that buoyed the poor for 30 years until a conservative in the White House gutted Housing and Urban Development by the billions. And it was a liberal in the White House that changed how we understand welfare and Free Trade in the U.S. as we know it. As a minister I can’t speak to the partisan politics, nor do I find politics to ever be clear cut or uniform. Each of us must make our own informed choices. This congregation is healthiest when we have members from all political parties – and know that we do. Dialogue makes us stronger. But as a minister, I can’t allow politics to redefine what religion has meant for millennia. It’s clear cut on this. We are the congregation of the loving hearts and the helping hands. We teach that to our children, and we need to live that as adults.
So where does that leave us? How do we move on from here?
Anyone remember that 1975 classic movie called, “Network.” The premise was a prophetic look forward to the Murdoch and Fox news phenomenon – or one might say the same about the Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” phenomenon. In this movie, the news has stopped being the news, and it’s become a profit motive that sells the wares of an ideological elite. The movie is rightfully a classic, and seen as one of the 100 greatest movies of all time. There is a line toward the beginning where the news anchor, speaking as a wayward prophet for the American disgust-of-all-that-is, screams to his viewers to go out to their windows and doors, open them up, and scream over and over, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” He wants the American people to own up to their frustration and disgust with business as usual – with war, crime, pollution, and poverty. Centered in the NYC of the 1970s, we’re bracketed by war; dealing with the start or middle of the White Flight that gutted and burned NYC; with the impending fiscal default of the City – people were disgruntled, disenfranchised, losing hope, and, more importantly, losing faith in the path forward. The reality of the 1970s white flight would come to vividly impact housing choices out here in Long Island – to this day.
The movie “Network,” had its own prophet. The news prophet knew that something must be done and it had to begin with a personal transformation. A transformation that would get the average person out of their chair, out of their door, and civically engaged. The character said that had to start with anger. When I first saw the movie, I didn’t agree. I didn’t believe this all needs to start with anger. I believed that anything that begins with anger will likely end with anger. Nowadays, I’m less certain. Anger is a real emotion that speaks to the injustice in the world; it’s telling us something. But we can’t stay in anger. When we dwell in anger, it’s a warning sign. Dwelling turns into that sort of up-is-down version of Christianity — don’t love thy neighbor – feel righteous fury against thy neighbor. That’s a false teaching.
Religiously speaking – social transformation needs to begin from a place of compassion. We need to be centered in our lives, in our selves, in our motivations. We need to find the truth in those simple teachings of Jesus I began with. Teachings that are foundational to Christianity, birthed and rooted in Judaism, and remarkably found in all world faiths. Caring for the poor or naked is not a specifically Christian message. It’s a religious message. It’s a compassionate message. And to make it a reality, a spiritual mindset must be found, not a politically angry one. Anger is easy. Compassion and conviction are hard. Let’s find a way to take the hard path.
Some of us may choose to join the marches and protests across the nation. Some of us may feel that the economic system as it is, is mostly ok. I know that for some of us the debate could take days, and for others the answer’s already a given. Speaking in religious terms though, our country produces enough goods to feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; shelter the homeless, and yes even visit those in prison. But we don’t. We’ve missed the mark. We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark. Even now at the tail end of a recession, where not everyone has returned to employment. And our imagined anti-christ is telling us it’s not our problem, we don’t have enough, and we couldn’t change it even if we wanted to.
This mindset reminds me of one of the Jewish teachings in scripture. Moses is away to Mount Sinai to commune with God. The people are struggling with survival. And after a time they turn to worshiping a golden calf. When Moses returns, he destroys the calf as an idol of a false god; a god that mankind made. This story is about a turning away from the abundance and freedom God has given us, and the subsequent return to living the values we already know. What are our golden calves in 2017?
We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark, and yet we don’t. I have no magic wand that will remedy this. I have no ear of presidents, or prophets to resolve this. But I do have your ear, and we do have each other. I challenge each of us to tackle just one of these five issues for a start. Between all of us, we’ll probably cover all of them in some way. What kind of clothing work do we do? Some of us donate to shelters. I know we collect bags and bags of clothes every year – for veteran’s groups, for our Men’s Shelter as we learn of needs. Can we institutionalize this outside of the cold weather months? Would one of us be willing to step forward and help manage this the other 6 months a year?
Do we feed the hungry? We run a cold-weather shelter; and we collect food for the town pantry during the cold-weather months. And we grow vegetables during the warm weather months. If you came early this service, you saw pictures of our Grow to Give Garden. If you haven’t taken part yet, I encourage you to reach out to Beth Feldman who leads our warm-weather food ministry here.
And we do shelter the homeless; our Fellowship was a leading force in building the Huntington response to the tragic death of one homeless man in the winter over 10 years ago. With the cold-weather months coming to an end, this shelter closes till the end of the year though.
You could imagine me saying the same for caring for the sick, or visiting those in prison. I personally would add an addendum to visiting those in prison – it would sound something like, “Reduce the need and reliance on prisons.” That would be a ministry true. Do we have folks among us for whom this issue lights a spark? The world needs healing here as well. It is for all of us to step up. Our pastoral care associate, Gerri Farrell, and I are beginning to work with LI-CAN on Long Island to explore how we can make headway against the opioid and heroin epidemic. If you’re interested in helping, please do reach out. And others are helping with undocumented people who are being called to court – to walk and witness with them during that scary time. If you’re interested in being trained to be such a witness – reach out to our social justice co-chairs, Diana Weaving or Steve Burby. There is much to do locally.
These five basic teachings of Jesus are at risk in the modern US, and we can be of help. We each have to make our own value-based decisions in life. In light of recent US Budget proposals, I worry around some of our national choices, and how far afield we’ve gone. Up was down, left was right; the party-goers were doomed to always be trapped in tea-time because the Mad Hatter was said to have murdered time.
I’ll close with the words of the poet Marge Piercy who we heard earlier this service. She responds to this madness with, “It goes one at a time. It starts when you care to act. It starts when you do it again after they say No. It starts when you say We and know who you mean; and each day you mean one more.”
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/12/17. It asks the questions, how do we stay true to ourselves when being true means more than one thing? What do we risk with each choice?
Always an avid reader, I’m finding myself drawn more and more lately, to folklore, fantasy, and like I spoke about last week –Science Fiction – to help me sort through the challenges we as a people are facing. So many cultural and ethical norms seem to be at risk these days. In some ways, reading can be a form of escapism – to explore another person or another world’s problems – while getting to forget about our own for a few hours at a time. But good literature can have the opposite effect – bringing fresh light to our worldly challenges as we approach them from a new angle.
I want to thank Cathi Zillmann, who “won” this sermon topic at our annual services auction. We’ll begin talking about what it means to be caught between two worlds first through this idea of ‘story’, and then we’ll find our way to what that means in our own lives. Two central questions: how do we stay true to ourselves when being true means more than one thing? What do we risk with each choice?
Probably the most classic folk story about being caught between two worlds, is the tale of Rip Van Winkle. If I were talk about the parts of it that I remember from childhood telling’s, it’s a sort of fairy tale story where the male character gets drawn toward music from some strange musicians, only to wake 20 years in the future, his kids grown, his wife long deceased. I remember some versions of the story as a kid placing Rip Van Winkle lost in faerie land, but the original story was about a guy during pre-revolutionary America coming awake after the Revolutionary War was over. He left the world a loyal subject supporting King George, only to awaken to a new nation – one he wasn’t expecting the night before. I know it’s a feeling some of us are wrestling with these days, as so many cultural and ethical norms seem challenged to some of us. What world did we leave behind; what world did we awake to?
But that’s just the cleaner, less sexist version of the story. Rip Van Winkle was a Dutch villager who was beloved by all, except he always tried to avoid hard work, and the story tells of his “nagging wife” who never relented. This ultimately led him to getting lost listening to the music at the foot of the Catskills. The Washington Irving short story even went so far as to say that when he returned those 20 years later to learn that his wife had died, he wasn’t saddened by the news. The other “henpecked husbands” often wished they could get a sip of Van Winkle’s elixir so they too could disappear. It’s yet another folk tale that makes me wonder, why do we tell these stories to kids.
As we continue this month reflecting on Women’s History, it’s important to remember all the messages we raise our children with. They create the world we live in, again and again – for good or for ill. Even as the generally progressive people we strive to be, we too dip our feet into two worlds – creating equity in some places, and contributing to misogyny in others. Just being open to the possibility that we’re missing how we each contribute to these harmful messages, can be the first step in undoing the harm. Learning to name them, begins the practice of unlearning the negative story.
On the spiritual level though, this folk tale is pointing toward something else. Rip Van Winkle is beloved by the community. He’s good with kids, fun, and kind to the people around him (except for his wife.) He’s known in the tavern, and a good storyteller in some versions of the folk tale. But he’s unhappy because he doesn’t want to work hard around the house – I’m guessing it’s a farming community. Maybe he’s just lazy; or maybe Rip Van Winkle is caught between two worlds in his daily living. I think most of us can relate; working jobs that are unsatisfying, but we need to make ends meet. You make due as best as you can, but you don’t feel like you’re really living until the workday is over.
As we heard Mary Oliver’s words earlier, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Now Rip Van Winkle’s falling down into the grass turns out to take away 20 years from his one wild and precious life. Though he did know how to be idle, he probably never really felt blessed.
Feeling caught between two worlds – living for our mundane needs, while striving for some deeper meaning that’s central to our story – is the bedrock to every mid-life crisis. It’s also essentially the story of our whole lives. How do we live into our full selves while we struggle with making ends meet, or being “a success” in our careers? What success means for each of us will be different, but we all probably share in a common anxiety over these life-long challenges. The Rip Van Winkle story is a sort of 1820s version of quitting your job, buying a red sports car and taking a cross-country road trip with the rock band. When you come back, your family’s probably not going to be waiting – as least not as you once knew it.
Most of us probably will, or already have, faced many versions of the classic mid-life crisis. Feeling like we’re caught between two worlds is at the core of that crisis. The existential question, “Is this all there is?” leads to radical changes – changes that may not actually solve our emotional crisis.
There’s an early John Mayer song that came out about 15 years ago that has a line in it where he’s singing about his “Quarter-Life Crisis.” It’s basically “the new mid-life crisis” for Generation X, and later the Millennial generation, who would both feel it’s sting. For the early Boomers, mid-life crisis was something like how I described it before, or maybe it was some natural expression around being an Empty Nester, or being the age of an Empty Nester and never having had kids. How you’ve lived for a long time, doesn’t exactly work any longer, and you’re left wondering how do you stay true to yourself, when “being true” means more than one thing. Retirement, especially for those whose life revolved around one singular career, is a major shock to our sense of self. We might be eager to take a long-well deserved break from a lifetime of work, but one of the largest ways we’ve spent our lives has come to an end, and we sometimes can struggle through rebuilding our sense of self. The more we identified with our career, the more painful this may be.
The Quarter-life crisis is something different. There’s still the same sense of crisis of identity, but the world’s pressures are different. My generation and the one following me, are highly unlikely to stay in the same career for 30 years, or retire before we’re 70. Retiring at 65 is already almost impossible for the late-Boomer generation. My Dad worked till he was 70, and forced into retirement, or he would have probably chosen to work till he was 75. But after his time in the Navy, he worked in the same career (telecommunications) for just shy of 50 years. I’m not sure that’s possible for young adults going into the work world today – certainly not likely for staying in the same company. My husband has been working at the same not-for-profit for almost 20 years, and when our friends hear that, their eyes bug out like they’re looking at a unicorn. There are outliers, but our world is forming a new normal.
For the upcoming generation – being 25 seems to ask the question – “What will I do next?” It’s the natural response to uncertainty, lack of stability, and a future that appears to confuse all of us these days. Do we risk doing what we’ve done again and again, or do we risk starting over, not knowing what may come? Maybe that’s a challenge for all of us, at all stages of our lives.
For Rip Van Winkle, it was a fantasy solution of running off to hear the music and drink the night away. Fast forward 20 years and it’s all better. In reality, living with our feet in two worlds, takes a lot of work to make the transition. For me, it took about 7 years of serious effort, from the point where I knew I was going to leave Information Technology, to when I was finally able to go into the ministry. Maybe we make fun of the mid-life crisis in TV, and movies, because it’s a sort of running away – we laugh at what is tragic. I think we laugh at the Quarter-life crisis, because ‘those kids don’t know how hard it’s going to get.” When in reality, it’s a life-change that has us running toward something, rather than away from. Different life stages, different challenges – all something we all will likely face to some degree or another if we are fortunate enough to get the chance to face our struggles with options.
The Russian Nestling dolls we heard about in our story earlier in the service, remind me of one of the lessons I carry with me from seminary psychology graduate work. “We are all the ages we have ever been.” I’ll go into this in much more detail at the end of the month when I preach on “Adulthood” (if I still I have anything to say on the topic! So maybe expect a new topic at the end of the month, the more I think about it.) Maybe childhood, in a way, is a smaller doll nestled within a larger doll. Each developmental stage we (hopefully) mature in to, is a larger compartment for what came before. For each of us, there will come adversity, that will return us to our helpless childhood. Likewise, there will be moments of wonder and newness that we’ll have to face with our child-like mind, in order to appreciate and properly face them with awe and joy. The lessons of adulthood are not always the appropriate way to face all things; just like the innocence of childhood sometimes sets us back. From a human development standpoint, we are all living in multiple worlds – far more than two – the older we get and (or so long as) the more we mature. As we age, or as we mature, or maybe both, we grow with more and more dolls nestled within our sense of self. Sometimes we live this way unaware; sometimes we knowingly can take out another doll for each thing we come across. What Russian nestling doll do you take out to face your kid being born? Which do you turn to when you lose your career, or get the horrible medical news? Which one do you show at the family reunion, or the retirement party?
In some ways, they get formed after or through every major life change. I have a story that’s vivid in my mind the first time I drove a car on my own; when I moved away from my childhood home; when I rented my first house, and ended my first long term partnership. Each person that’s died in my life has left another nestled doll in my spirit, and each major success has built another.
The story of a lifetime, how we balance our internal life with the needs of our external world, is our great challenge. We all live in two worlds: How things are, and how they might be; Our deepest yearnings, and our worldly needs; Our professional masks, with all their requirements and needs, and what we choose to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon (for those, of course, that don’t work on Sundays.) We experience great pain, when our inner and external lives are not in sync. When our spiritual life is sacrificed for worldly gain; or when worldly needs are so strong that we seem to need to sacrifice the questions of the spirit.
What does it mean to be a people of risk? Life is defined by risk; risks taken, and risks avoided. Each choice, even to stay on the “safe path”, is another risk. We can only be a people of risk, but we may not always realize it. The pain at the center of feeling like we’re living in two worlds, is the confusion that any of us ever live any other way. Yearning and satisfaction – are the perennial human struggle. What came before, and what may yet be – are possibly the two most terrifying yet poignant questions of any life. We each face them, day by day. There are moments that we feel those burning questions all the more, but they linger in the corners of our hearts silently everyday – left unacknowledged – they jump out when we’re catching our breaths.
As Mary Oliver asked, “Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass…”. Who made this human, the one who had flung herself into the next stage of life, and the next challenge, and the next pain, and the next joy? I am uneasy, or I am satisfied, by all that has come and all that will be. I am moving into the next world of this one wild and precious life, step by step, fear by joy, uncertainly with risk and cautious abandon. We do so uneasy – caught between two worlds – when we think of our lives this way; always drawing our stories as tales of what was, and what will be, sleeping away twenty years to strange music and stranger drink. Or we risk our lives moving into the next moment; jostling all of our internal nestled dolls, knowing that our life may be welcoming one more layer to our souls.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/5/17. As the Christian world enters the season of Lent, we will reflect on what choices we make that open our spirits through vulnerability. This service also opens our reflections for Women’s History Month.
In the Christian calendar, we’ve entered into the season of Lent. For some of us, Tuesday night was a night of celebration, before 40 days of fasting. For my own Lenten practice, I’ve given up excesses. I’m eating less, going to bed sooner, very limited alcohol – those sorts of changes. I’m reflecting a lot on mortality, sacrifice, purpose and meaning. Ash Wednesday is the most humanist practice in the Christian liturgy; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s a time to reflect on the vulnerability of life. There’s a sense of atonement to the sacrament, but one where it’s more about returning to right perspective rather than seeking forgiveness.
This past Wednesday, had an odd end to it for me. A week or so ago, we came upon a pair of tickets to Sunset Boulevard on Broadway, when a friend wasn’t going to be able to go to see it after all. The audience clearly found it riveting, enjoyable and fully engaging. Maybe seeing the musical on Ash Wednesday itself, affected how I saw it, but I found the story of an aging starlet re-living her bygone days of fame, thoroughly horrifying. There’s a classic dialogue that sums it up, “You heard him. I’m a star.” “Norma, you’re a woman of 50, now grow up. There’s nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25.” “The greatest star of them all.”
Now, for the record, I forgot that the Norma Desmond character was only 50 years old – I may have gasped out loud when her age was given. At 41, I can’t imagine feeling like she does in less than a decade from now. She becomes a metaphor for the worst excesses and demands we place upon women; and she in return tragically becomes a caricature of herself. It’s not a story of hope; but one of mortality, lost purpose, and misguided sacrifice – sacrifice that only serves to lift up another’s ego. It’s a cautionary tale, and a critique against our culture of excess, of idealizing youth. It tries to teach us not to box in women, with our impossible standards.
Norma Desmond, despite being known as “the greatest star of them all” in yesteryear, she was a star in the days of the silent screen. She was beautiful, she was captivating, she was young, but she never got to speak a word. Brené Brown, an American scholar, author, and public speaker, who is currently a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has her own words that seem to speak directly to this. “Even to me the issue of “stay small, sweet, quiet, and modest” sounds like an outdated problem, but the truth is that women still run into those demands whenever we find and [risk using] our voices.”
…Risk using our voices… All this month we are reflecting on what it means to be a people of Risk. Our children and youth have risked putting their art on display in our galleries, where I hope they will learn the lesson of stretching into their talent, and I hope our adults share their compliments with our artists whose names are on our walls. Not to be quiet, sweet or small, but big, and present, and central to the life of our community. Being a people of risk, means creating spaces for each of us to grow, and to challenge ourselves. It’s the central message behind our third principle where covenant to accept each another and encourage on another toward growth.
Religiously speaking though, how does risk – how does vulnerability -open our spirits to newness, to life? Love and loss – two sides to the sometimes hard lessons of risk in our lives; to love something or someone, knowing that some day we will all face grievous loss. As the poet Anne Sexton’s words we heard earlier in the service, “when you face old age and its natural conclusion, your courage will still be shown in the little ways… and at the last moment when death opens the back door you’ll put on your carpet slippers and stride out.” Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust; but what comes in between birth and death is worth fully living, without our focus lost on what may come, or what once was.
History is vital, sometimes life-saving, and crucial to our cultural heritage. But when history turns into Norma Desmond’s grieving yesteryear, it ceases to be history; it becomes a prison of the spirit. Sometimes we are faced with loss, powerful and hard. And sometimes our grief is more ‘50 wanting to be 25’; (as if we were actually fully happy all the time at 25.) To return to other words from Brene Brown, “I’ve found what makes children happy doesn’t always prepare them to be courageous, engaged adults.” Now 25 isn’t childhood, but at any point in our lives this statement can be true. What makes us happy doesn’t always prepare us to be courageous and engaged. Love and loss – come hand in hand onto life’s stage – and ask us to live while we can with all the pain, and the joy. Hiding from the ashes in our lives, sometimes is a seemingly necessary coping mechanism… and Lent invites us to face what we might otherwise not be ready for, with humility, with sacrifice; for purpose, with meaning.
We see this in the wider living world too. I’ll speak of this in more detail later in the month when I’ll devote a whole service to the Recklessness of Spring; but I’m thinking of gardens as we are seeing a disturbingly early Spring. As Beth Feldman and her team get our community garden ready to grow food for the town’s food pantry, I’m doing work on my own home garden. We had a lot of wild grasses in flowerbeds outside our windows that although browned over the winter, remained whole through March. I didn’t really want to cut them back; they are beautiful in their own way, and helped to keep my spirits up during the winter months that are so hard on many of us. But if they’re left whole, a strong rain can force the soil to sort of get bogged down like a swamp. It’s best for the plant to cut it back, and have it grow anew come Spring – otherwise it risks rotting from the inside and dying. I miss how my windows look, even though I know they’ll come back again soon. But to everything, there is a season, and that is as true for us, as it is true for the rest of the natural world. We are no different.
Change – the hardest spiritual truth. When communities slowly adjust to the times, we can get in the habit of critiquing anything different by labeling it “change” – as if that in itself makes it bad or wrong – even if the change is slow coming, well thought out, and well discussed. It’s the universal buzzword to end all debate – the worst 4 letter word.
As some of you know, I’m an avid sci-fi and fantasy reader. I’ll find a new author and work through all their works before moving onto the next. Octavia Butler is my latest find. Somehow, I’ve missed her work till this year, but she’s increasingly being covered in English Literature classes. I’m reading through her “Parable of the Sower” right now. She’s a prominent author, and one of the few Black sci-fi writers to break into the genre, and she’s clearly one of the best writers I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Her writing is as much theology as it is sci-fi. Without ruining the plot, especially since I am still working my way through her writing, I want to share a little of her theology that I find translates universally to be true. Here are 4 short points, that I’ll share, and then I’ll talk a little more about them: 1) “All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth, is Change. God is Change.” 2) “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you.” 3)“We’ll adapt. We’ll have to. God is Change. Strange how much it helps me to remember that.” 4) “Drowning people sometimes die fighting their rescuers”
The first quote: “All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth, is Change. God is Change.” Some of us are most familiar with this teaching in the Buddhist context, where our attachment to things not changing only leads to suffering since all things change, and attachment to what can not be – is painful. The Serenity Prayer is a more modern version of this spiritual lesson: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” There are things we can change, things we can affect in our lives, and there are many things that we cannot. Love and Loss – to face each as they come is one of the hardest lessons.
But for Octavia Butler, she’s looking at this message a little differently. Change for her is sometimes like a rock banging against an object. All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you.” The rock can break another rock, or a window, or maybe a door; but the rock will probably also break at least a little itself, as it comes up against what it changes. Change always happens in relationship – it’s never isolated. That’s probably part of the reason that is feels so difficult in community, because all the relationships are even more pronounced and obvious – it can feel like the change is compounding upon itself. And during this season of Lent, we’re reminded in even more vivid ways, that every little change can begin to point us toward the biggest of changes in life – ashes to ashes. We all feel that worry at some time in our lives.
The next two theological quotes speak for themselves: “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you.” And “We’ll adapt. We’ll have to. God is change.” But Butler poignantly teaches us that, “Strange how much it helps me to remember that.” We can catch ourselves always focused on the worst, or on the end that changes bring, but there’s a deeper spirituality found in the practice of remembering that change is at the very foundation of our being. We can forget that we come into this world in an act of tremendous change – that all that is and will ever be – comes from change. Change is also our birthright, and there is a solace we can find in that when we open ourselves to that truth. (maybe tell the short Buddhist parable of the drop of water in the wave.)
Lastly, “Drowning people sometimes die fighting their rescuers.” The novel “The Parable of the Sower” is a spiritual novel, but it’s also a political one. I’ll let you read that part of it on your own, but there’s a line that’s meant to be political during a time of crisis, that I also read it as spiritual. People will find “a tyrant we fear or a leader we follow.” Leaving the politics aside, Change can be either. In our seasons of love and loss, we can see Change as a tyrant to fear, or a leader to follow. How we accept the changes before us, how we open our hearts to vulnerability, determines where our spirits will lead us. Will we see Change as always and forever a tyrant – and experience more suffering for it, or will we understand Change to be a leader that we can learn from as we live into a new day? Love and loss: For Butler, “We are the life that perceives itself changing.” On some days we may wish it otherwise for the grief that it brings us, but self-awareness also allows us to experience love in our life; the spiritual truth that they come hand in hand.
Change is in a way, the great rescuer, even if we find ourselves flailing to keep it from taking us where it is going to take us. The great losses – of life and health – are the things we have no power over – we can only grieve and hope some day to heal our hearts enough to carry on. But so often, we take the small losses and confuse them as the great ones – and we lessen ourselves for it – we risk drowning in the water while we fight our rescuers.
I’ll close with the words of a former minister of mine, Rev. Forrest Church, who frequently taught that religion is the awareness of the dual nature of being born, and knowing that will some day die. As we begin our road to Easter, we do so in ashes. “We are the life that perceives itself changing.” May we hold a fondness for that which we love, that which once was, and may we leave our spirits open for what may yet still come. The act of living is to be vulnerable; may we all so live.